7 Books About Color Every Designer (and Color Fan) Should Own

Color-fans: I’m motoring for the next few weeks in the final push to write my book about color. So naturally I can’t move an inch without my laptop and a burstingly full backpacks of reference books…which got me thinking: how full are your bookshelves with THE best color reads? Here’s your hit list of 7 faves:

Let’s start with the brand-new: PANTONE: The 20th Century in Color. Leatrice Eiseman, Pantone’s chief color guru, has just published a gorgeous compendium of color trends spanning the twentieth century (with naturally some sly winks into our own 21st century). It’s marvelous to leaf through or read in greater depth – a fantastic reference for any designer tasked with a retro-look project or simply eager to plumb the trends of colors past, since they so often shade into color trends future.

Our good buddies at COLOURLovers just released their first book (published by F&W Publications, Print’s mama-site). Color Inspirations is another go-to reference with a crowd-sourcing spin: it contains over 3,000 color palettes created by COLOURLover’s vibrant community of palette-makin’ and -sharin’ designers and color fans. It’s lightning in a bottle, simply put – capturing the energy and fun of the community site in a useable, handy format. View an Design TV exclusive, What is COLOURLovers.

Kelvin: Colour Today was published in 2007 by my heros at Gestalten in Berlin – four years later, it’s still a practically unbeatable resource. It’s a brilliantly simple concept: the book is organized by colors, gathering a juicy bursting rainbow of graphic design samples featuring an innovative or especially clever use of a single color. Naturally, many designs feature multiple colors, but if your project has a clearly dominant main color, this book will present you with a world of options to riff creatively from that starting point.

You can’t talk about Mack-Daddy color compendia guides without mentioning Jim Krause’s Complete Color Index. This book has fast become a classic of its kind, updated periodically (as in this extra-fat new edition). You’ll see this book dog-eared and battered at your favorite designer’s office – grab one for yourself, too.

Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color stands alone among color theory books: a classic that never fails to surprise with its continued relevance. Albers presents a series of dead-simple color exercises that prove in myriad ways Albers’ own premise in dealing with color: “Color deceives continually.” In example after example, you’ll be astounded at how much color perception can be influenced by simple proximity of other hues.


So much for color theory and inspiration guides. What about meatier reads that help you really get inside the universe that is color? Well, I hope to be writing one of those myself now, so watch this space in Christmas 2012 for more. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy these books as heartily as I have.

Let’s start with Derek Jarman’s Chroma. Jarman began writing this as a simple book of essays, exploring the arcana of historical facts, anecdote and observations he associated with each color. Midway through the book’s creation, Jarman fell ill with AIDS, which ultimately led to his demise in 1995. The book is glorious, odd, moving, personal and universal at the same time. Crack it open regularly and often: some shiny new fact about color will readily pop out.


Simon Garfield’s Mauve opened my eyes to a quietly astonishing fact: colors weren’t always cheap and ubiquitous as they are today. In fact, in the era before synthetic dyes – that is, before the 1850s when William Perkin accidentally invented the first synthetic dye, dubbing it “mauve” – bright color was elusive and cost the earth. No longer, thanks to Perkin. We can also thank him (and synthetic color) for inventing what became the field of modern industrial chemistry.

There are quite a few more great color books jamming my shelves, but these should keep you happily reading and leafing for weeks. Dig in, people!


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8 COMMENTS

  1. Pingback: color, colour, Jude Stewart, inspiration, design, gifts, trends, orange, pantone, tangerine, 2011, New Year, Color in Design Awards, Color Conference — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  2. Pingback: color, colour, Jude Stewart, inspiration, design, gifts, trends, orange, pantone, tangerine — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  3. Nice post, Jude. Thanks for all that information. I can’t say enough about Krause’s Color Index; it’s always on my desk. I find it indispensible when creating color palettes for projects. It’s a great resource for print and web. For print-only I also use Process Color Manual pretty extenisvely (Michael and Pat Rogondino, Chronicle Books, copyright 2000; may be out of print). It’s page after page of sequential CMYK mixes set-up in a x/y grid. Very helpful. Theory books are great but I find that when I need to develop palettes I need mixes, so I rely pretty heavily on the two books I mentioned. I also have Pantone books and chips that I use quite a bit.

  4. Thanks, Lynne and Jane. Itten is definitely a classic of color theory – the emotional side of the Bauhaus to Albers’ more analytical approach. They make good companion reads, for sure. Lynne, I’m a big fan of Finlay’s book, as well as Gage.
    I don’t know Angela Wright’s, but I’m always glad to add to my library. I do own a deck of Lüscher’s color psychology cards – this post explains more on the sometimes daffy world of color personality tests:
    http://www.printmag.com/Article/A-Guide-To-Finding-Your-Inner-Color-Personality
    Will certainly let you know more about my book when it’s out, too.

  5. When I first started art school Itten’s ‘The Elements of Color’ was on the list of required equipment necessary before the course began. We had colour theory classes and had to paint our own colour wheel in gouache. There were no computers and to physically mix the paints helps to understand how colours work.

  6. I found ‘Colour – Travels through the Paintbox’ by Victoria Finlay fascinating and inspiring. Would complement ‘Mauve’ perfectly.
    For a thorough introduction to colour psychology try ‘The Beginners Guide to Colour Psychology’ by Angela Wright. The content is clear – although the images are in need of an update.
    Finally – John Gage ‘Colour & Culture’ and ‘Colour & Meaning’ – awesome textbooks….
    Look forward to reading yours…